13 Transformations for Christmas

My second Christmas blog is written by my friend and neighbor Lee Hart. In his moving article, he describes transformation for 13 men as being a difficult process with setbacks along the way, a process that requires the loving assistance of community and most important of all, hitting a bottom to where placing their lives in God’s hands offers the one hope that brings about transformation. Will it last? Cynics can dispute the chances of lasting change but as Philip Yancey says, “Yet as I read the birth stories about Jesus I cannot help but conclude that though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog.” Personally, I like their chances. Their faith in that God who favors them along with personal commitment will make the difference. John Buller

Lee Hart is a long-time Calgary resident who began his own journey of transformation about six years ago. In that time he has worked “to give back, what was freely given to him” and has become a sponsor (or mentor) to a number of men struggling with the disease of alcoholism — carrying a message of hope. It is never hopeless, but we are helpless, until we find a sincere willingness to change, and ask for God’s help. Along with “working with others”, Hart has been a writer for more than 40 years. He worked for newspapers as a writer and editor for many years, and for the past 25 years has been an agricultural writer and field editor for Canadian farm magazines Country Guide and more recently Grainews.

 13 Transformations for Christmas

I experienced a very moving moment of transformation recently  as I attended the “graduation” of 13 men from a 12-week drug and alcohol rehabilitation program here in Calgary. The fact the event was just one week before Christmas made it even more special. What an amazing gift for  their friends and families!

It was not the first “grad” of this nature I have been to in recent years., but it was particularly important to me as one of my best friends took his few minutes at the mike to express his heartfelt gratitude to the staff of the Fresh Start Recovery Center, his fellow recovering addicts and alcoholics, and of course God for giving him another chance at life.

Each spoke in turn about where they were in life 12 weeks ago before being accepted into this program. Most of these guys were between the ages of 25 and 40 although there was one old sufferer (55 years) who hadn’t been out of Yellowknife in more than 25 years largely because for much of that time he had been in and out of prison for one offence or another.

Their stories were as varied as their personalities, but all had a common message — their alcoholism or drug addiction had brought them to a point of complete hopelessness. Most had lost everything – jobs, homes, family and friends, and perhaps worst of all they had lost any hope of ever being released from the death-grip of their addiction.

One young man, Jeff, said he had pleaded with his family just to leave him alone. He said he was a wasted, useless human being and he just wanted to die. They didn’t give up on him, and helped him to get into Fresh Start.  At the grad ceremony, among the audience of about 125 friends and family were his sister and his mom who had driven all the way from the North West Territories to be there for his graduation. There were a lot of tears.

My friend Tim has been struggling with his alcoholism for more than 15 years. He’s been in and out of jail, in and out of treatment centers. Although there had been brief periods of recovery, those were followed by relapse. Late last August as he disappeared into another binge of drinking and drugs he texted me that he just wanted to die. He felt it was hopeless. I was prepared for a call saying he had overdosed, or met some other untimely end.

But by the grace of God he hit his bottom, and made it to the Renfrew Recovery Detox Center in Calgary, where over the next few days they got him clean and sober. He didn’t have many treatment options left, but through the caring persistence of the Renfrew staff they finally on September 9 got him a bed at the Fresh Start Recovery Center.

I have known Tim for a few years. We meet or at least talk just about every day. When he is clean and sober he is probably one of the finest young men a person could ever know. Clean cut, polite, courteous, unassuming. He’s been in the welding trade for number of years – he could make good money there, and that helped to support his spiraling drug and alcohol addiction.

But his great passion in life, and by all accounts, his great talent in life is golf. He wants to be a professional golfer, he wants a career in the golf industry. He was an amazing golfer as a 15 and 16 year old, but soon got derailed by the booze. There was a long period of self-destruction. When he finally picked up his clubs again about a year and a half ago, he was still an amazing golfer. After just a few weeks of rigorous practice he could play a challenging course and come in with a 68 or 69 score on a par 72 course. It sure bugged me— I dream of someday breaking 100.

In good stretches he has worked with professional golfers here in Calgary, who all agree “here is a kid who has something.”  He had a dream, but he also suffers from a serious, life-threatening disease — alcoholism.

As they completed the 12 week recovery program,  these men and their friends and families celebrated the fact they had all been clean and sober for 90 days. That 90 days of counseling in a safe and supportive environment had brought each one from the depths of despair to the threshold of hope — an amazing transformation.  They’ve all been given another chance.

The reality of drug and alcohol addiction is that there is no cure. It is a chronic, progressive and fatal disease. But there is a solution. Part or most of their rehabilitation program is built around a 75-year-old program called Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It is a 12-step program. It is a program each sufferer must practice for the rest of their lives, one day at a time, if they hope to remain sober.

The AA program itself has nothing to do with alcohol….alcohol is only mentioned once in the 12 Steps. The AA program is about learning to change who you are as a person. It’s about teaching men and women how to live life on life’s terms, dealing with the joys, difficulties and stresses of everyday life without resorting to that great “fixer” – alcohol.

And a vital component of that 12 step program is learning to connect with your spirituality — finding God or that higher power, it is essential. The book of AA clearly states “no human power can relieve us of alcoholism” and “there is no cure, we are granted a daily reprieve contingent on our spiritual condition.”

Will these 13 men make it? I don’t know. I certainly hope so. They completed a 12-week recovery program, but they are really just at the beginning of their journey. If they leave that center and a week or month or two down the road say “I think I am okay now. I think I can go back to my old life, I can go back to my old job, my old friends, and my old thinking and damn I am sure I can manage a drink now and then, I know how to handle it…” if they allow that kind of thinking to creep into their minds, it will only be a matter of time before they are right back at their absolute bottom and they may have another chance at recovery or they may just die. That happens far too often.

They need to leave that center with a rock solid commitment to keep in touch of their recovery, with that 12-step program, every day of their lives. The willingness to change who they are needs to be burned into their souls. And every day of their lives they need to be asking for God’s help and guidance. It has often been said in the AA program that alcoholism is the only disease that tells you don’t have a disease. That’s often followed with a comment, “while I’m in this room at my AA meeting, my disease is out in the parking lot doing push ups.”  There is no break. There is no room to let your guard down…alcoholism “is a cunning, powerful and baffling” disease.

I hope they all make it. Some do, but many don’t. Changing who and what you have been for probably more than half your life is no easy task. But if they ask for God’s help they will make it.

It was moving and inspiring for me to bear witness to the first and dramatic phase of transformation these men have made. My prayers are with them as they continue the journey.

Lee Hart 

Foundations of Transformation: Christmas

In an attempt to reinforce the idea that Christmas provides a  foundation for transformation,  I bring together two pieces, an essay by Michael Gerson and a poem by Daniel Berrigan.

Michael Gerson is a twice weekly editorial columnist for the Washington Post. In his Christmas column from December 2009 entitled The Grandest Myth, The Greatest Hope, Gerson points to the message of Christmas as nothing less than the most important “truth” of all time. Gerson, is a professing Christian,and I appreciate that he allows for honest doubt. His understanding of the Christmas story as myth, (Gerson seems to be using  “myth”  in the broadest most neutral sense) recognizes that millions of people of faith stake their lives upon the hope that Christ gives “cosmic importance (to) common lives”. His argument is similar to Pascal’s Wager: That if the Christian message holds true, the “payoff” is so great that it is better to believe than not to believe. As Gerson concludes  “if it is true, nothing is more important. If it is true, poverty and suffering have been shared and dignified by God Himself”.

In Advent Credo, Daniel Berrigan, the American Catholic priest, notorious peace activist, and poet, powerfully reinforces that same central Christmas message of transformation in “Jesus Christ— the life of the world.”

Jesus’ humble beginnings illustrate how God has shared in poverty, and that the starting point for transformation lies in identifying with the poor and the disadvantaged. Indeed, God identifying with the poor and disadvantaged as a central message of Christmas, provides millions with the foundation of how they want to live their lives and how I want to live mine.

The Grandest Myth, the Greatest Hope

For me, Christmas brings images of boxes, not wrapped but valued. At the end of a rural road in Kericho, Kenya, there is a compound overrun by playing children. Sister Placida — a nun whose frenetic temperament belies her name — raises AIDS orphans. It is a cheerful place but careful about preserving difficult memories. Sister Placida shows an album of pictures and detailed descriptions of people she has cared for who died from AIDS. The children keep memory boxes containing photos and mementos of their deceased parents. These acts of preservation seem a kind of desperate protest — that lives should matter to someone, even when they are short and tragic.

Any thinking visitor is confronted with a terrible prospect. Perhaps the protests are pointless. Some might consider these surplus lives. The dead are remembered sadly, then faintly, then not at all. Generations of the poor briefly walk the Earth, then become it — living and dying under cold, indifferent stars.

But Christmas carries a different message. A child of questionable parentage, born into humble circumstances, in a provincial backwater, begins a short life that ends in an execution. Yet it is somehow the hinge of history. Christmas tilts the universe toward the humble. It asserts that every child, in every stable, deserves angel choirs and the tribute of kings. It means that no life is too minor to matter; that the stars are warm and sheltering; that desperate prayers are heard and heeded; that every quiet, unnoticed death disturbs the cosmos; that memory boxes filled by children hold relics of eternity.

It may, of course, not be true. I’ll own up to occasional doubt. We have learned to be suspicious of our deepest longings. It is a human tendency to project our hopes into the universe, to create myths that fill a need for meaning. Christmas is the grandest of myths. But it may be pie in the sky.

It was C.S. Lewis, however, who responded: “We are afraid of the jeer about ‘pie in the sky.’ … But either there is ‘pie in the sky’ or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced.” I also admit to doubt about my doubts. Precluding a hope, just because we hope for it, is not rationality, it is a prejudice. It is also a human tendency to hug our despair.

Perhaps our deepest desires exist for a reason — because they are meant to be fulfilled. Perhaps we are not tortured by our hopes, but led by them. Perhaps, as Lewis insisted, this story is a “true myth” — the myth to which all other myths point.

Reassurance about the cosmic importance of common lives — including our own — comes in many forms and in many faiths. In various noble traditions, God visits prophets and sages with wisdom and comfort. But in the faith of Christmas, God just visits. A father is appalled. A mother hides a miracle in shame. A son eventually experiences disappointment, betrayal and mortality. Yet something extraordinary takes place.

“By normal human standards,” says theologian J.B. Phillips, “this is a tragic little tale of failure, the rather squalid story of a promising young man from a humble home, put to death by the envy and malice of the professional men of religion. All this happened in an obscure, occupied province of the vast Roman Empire. It is fifteen hundred years ago that this apparently invincible Empire utterly collapsed, and all that is left of it is ruins. Yet the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history.”

Being astonishing, of course, does not make something true. The message of Christmas seems scandalously unlikely to us, just as it did to sophisticated Romans at the time. But if it is true, nothing is more important. If it is true, poverty and suffering have been shared and dignified by God Himself. If it is true, hope and memory do not end in a gash of Earth. God, let it be true.

Advent Credo by Daniel Berrigan

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.